#5 PEORIA (9-2) at #4 VAIL CIENEGA (10-1)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. Friday at 12775 E. Mary Ann Cleveland Way, Vail.
The top half of the 4A-I bracket is almost a carbon copy of 2009. Again, No. 8 seed Apollo heads south to face No. 1 Canyon del Oro.
The difference this year is No. 5 Peoria will get a shot at No. 4 Cienega. The schools appeared poised for a second-round game last year, but Prescott Valley Bradshaw Mountain upset the Panthers and made the trip instead.
Last week, Peoria secured a visit to the school just south of Tucson by holding off Cienega’s Kino Region rival Nogales 42-28. While the Bobcats won’t abandon the run like the Apaches did, they, like most Southern Arizona teams, place a premium on speed and getting athletes into space.
“They play a different style of football in Tucson, nothing against it but it’s less physical down there,” Peoria coach Doug Clapp said. “We’re used to playing these head knockers up here.”
As Clapp was quick to point out, that doesn’t mean Cienega will be easy to stop. The Bobcats sport one of the state’s most potent offenses and receive almost perfect balance from their two senior stars.
Quarterback Jordan Mills (2,228 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and three interceptions) and Willie Willis (1,512 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns) have put up eye-popping numbers all year. They’re the engine for an attack averaging 47 points per game that is as close as you can get to an even split between rushing (262 carries and 244 yards a game) and passing (255 attempts and 239 yards per game).
“They’re balanced. They’ve become hard to defend,” Clapp said. “They’re methodical and they move the football.”
These gaudy numbers came mostly at the expense of inferior competition — until their first round game against Apache Junction, the Bobcats hadn’t played a team that could test them in two months — but Cienega showed it can outscore tougher foes as well, erasing a fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Prospectors 55-37.
While region play may not have prepared the Bobcats for the postseason, the core of their squad played Canyon del Oro in the semifinals last year.
“They have a group of players that have played deep into the playoffs,” Clapp said.
Apache Junction punished Cienega on the ground, rushing for 347 yards and five touchdowns. To keep the Bobcats offense off the field, Peoria figures to take a similar tact — and that’s what they do best.
Peoria rushed for 365 yards against Nogales, including 235 yards and four touchdowns by senior Devonte Shivers. Sophomores Adrian Enriquez (82 yards) and Eli Bealy (28 yards) came up from the junior varsity to provide support.
A third sophomore, Ira Rojas, should be back from injury after missing three games. Rojas broke out in the middle of the season, slashing for 462 yards on 68 carries in four games.
#8 GOODYEAR DESERT EDGE (9-2) at #1 CACTUS (10-1)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. tonight at 6330 W. Greenway Road, Glendale.
Cactus’ title defense receives a stiff test this week, against a team riding the crest of a six-game winning streak. The Scorpions do it with defense, allowing an average of 15 points per game.
Coach Rich Wellbrock has affected a culture change in his first year, more by imparting a philosophy than coming up with an exotic scheme. Desert Edge keeps its defense basicS, but preaches fast and physical play.
And while many high school teams with fast defenses — especially in 4A — sacrifice size to put more speed on the field, Desert Edge has a nice mix of both.
“They’ve got some kids that pass the eye test,” Fetkenhier said. “It’s not like they’re a bunch of ants out there.”
The Scorpions have played the No. 2 (Gilbert Williams Field), No. 3 (Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep) and No. 4 (Liberty) seeds in 4A-II, shutting down Williams Field and Liberty. But, Cactus’ offense will provide a challenge unlike any Desert Edge has seen.
The Cobras average 317 rushing yards per game behind a line that averages 275 pounds per man, yet is mobile enough to maintain the offense’s fast break tempo. Behind them, defenses have to pick their poison.
Senior Lashunn Norris has 1,296 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns despite missing two games and playing only a quarter against Cortez. Teams that key on him leave openings for quarterback Deke Cisco (1,161 yards and 19 touchdowns) on read option plays.
While the offense has been overwhelming all year, Cactus’ defense did not jell until midseason. Senior defensive tackle Cody Harris provides a disruptive force in the middle, with 11 sacks on the season. Senior Jon Moeck (six sacks) and junior Seth Dealejandro (seven sacks) add an outside pass rush, while junior Guy Williams (94 tackles) cleans up things at middle linebacker.
They’ll try to stop a Desert Edge offense that, like the defense, keeps things simple. Seniors Manny James (617 yards) and Danell Miles (556 yards) alternate rushing duties for the ball-control attack. Senior Shane Simmons (18 yards per reception) stretches the defense while junior Anthony Fletcher (44 receptions for 495 yards) moves the chains.
The Scorpions are a major step in class from the Cobras last two opponents, Cortez and Page, who Cactus beat by a combined score of 118-0. Yet, Fetkenhier said he’s impressed with how his team has maintained its focus and intensity — which should serve it well as a repeat bid gets to the later stages.
“I’ve been pleased at how we’ve been practicing,” Fetkenhier said. “They’ve prepared very well these last couple of weeks. I have no complaints.”
#5 ST. JOHN’S (9-2) vs #1 NORTHWEST CHRISTIAN (10-1)
KICKOFF: 5 p.m. Saturday at North Canyon High School, 17000 E. Union Hills Drive, Phoenix.
Despite the seedings, St. John’s is the heavyweight here. In Matt Morgan’s 20-plus years of coaching, the Redskins have claimed six 2A state championships, including titles in 2007 and 2008.
This year’s squad may not be as dominant as the undefeated 2008 St. John’s team, but it enters the semifinal playing its best football. The Redskins beat Camp Verde 28-14 last week for their ninth straight win.
“We’ve played a lot of good teams over the course of the year and they’re as good or better than any of them,” Northwest Christian coach Dave Inness said.
St. John’s strengths are its typical ones, a diverse running game and a physical defense. Andrew Madrid and Austin Davis are both near the 1,000-yard mark in rushing, while dual-threat quarterback Thomas Aevan has topped 1,500 yards in total offense. The defense allows only eight points a contest, and the Redskins losses were to solid 3A programs Payson and Round Valley.
Northwest Christian continues to play beyond its years. The Crusaders trailed Arizona Lutheran 13-7 in last week’s quarterfinal, but scored 21 third-quarter points and changed its defensive approach en route to a 42-13 romp.
The junior duo of tailback Casey Jahn (220 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries) and quarterback Orbi Gonzalez (eight for nine passing for 86 yards) powered the comeback. Jahn passed the 2,000-yard mark for the season in Saturday’s win.
Inness said he hopes the junior and sophomore-dominated squad remains oblivious to playoff pressure, and can shake any nerves caused by St. John’s stature.
“Our young guys don’t know any different,” Inness said. “All but a handful of guys didn’t know about St. John’s until this week. Our goal is to become a team like that someday.”